Rebuilding Haiti: Still a work in progress

In this file photo from 2015, a woman walks along the Champ de Mars public square in Port-au-Prince where a new Ministry of Interior building, left, and Supreme Court, right, financed by Taiwan, were under construction five years after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake wiped out all of the government's ministries.
In this file photo from 2015, a woman walks along the Champ de Mars public square in Port-au-Prince where a new Ministry of Interior building, left, and Supreme Court, right, financed by Taiwan, were under construction five years after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake wiped out all of the government's ministries. Miami Herald file photo

The rubble from collapsed buildings and homes that could have filled 4,000 Olympic-size swimming pools is gone. So are the tarps and tin shacks in public spaces, replaced by million dollar facelifts and towering construction cranes.

“There are things I am seeing that I never used to see,” said Jackison Marcellus, 23, looking out across the Champ de Mars, a group of public squares near downtown where he lived for three years under a tent after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

Five years after the world’s worst natural disaster left more than 300,000 dead and an equal number injured, this shattered nation appears to be in recovery mode: a new Supreme Court is almost finished; new roads and hotels have been built; security and health statistics have improved; and thanks to a generous amount of humanitarian aid from foreign donors, the deluge of people living in tent cities has dropped dramatically.

But for all the appearance of change, the vexing politics remain the same. On the eve of Monday’s fifth anniversary, Haitian politicians were scrambling to avert a deepening crisis by voting on a four-month extension for a second tier of the Senate, and the entire lower Chamber of Deputies. While two former chamber presidents and a presidential adviser said the terms expired at midnight, others insisted they had until the end of Monday. A tentative political agreement reached between President Michel Martelly and four political parties would prolong lawmakers’ terms but only if parliament voted an amendment to the electoral law to allow elections to be held. Martelly would rule by decree if there is no vote. Unable to establish a quorum in the Senate, Chamber President Simon Desras postponed the hearing until 10 a.m.

“It’s up to them,” Martelly said about the Senate, where six senators had blocked a vote on the law on constitutional grounds. Earlier in the day, one of them, Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, had joined protesters calling for Martelly’s resignation.

“They need to understand that everyone has given up something, and everyone has lost something,” Martelly said about those in the streets who were not part of the accord.

Seemingly resigned to accept the inevitable, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement saying if the crisis is not resolved, “the U.S. will continue to work with President Martelly and whatever legitimate Haitian government institutions remain to safeguard the significant gains we have achieved together since the January 12, 2010, earthquake.”

A new analysis by the United Nations shows that of $12.48 billion pledged — $2.5 billion more than what was initially reported during the U.N. donors conference two months after the earthquake —roughly 80 percent has been obligated or disbursed.

While all of the money pledged for debt relief and humanitarian assistance has been spent, donors are still lagging in their promises to help with recovery and development efforts. With no direct access to those funds, the Haitian government has relied on its own funds, using its discounted Venezuela oil largess, PetroCaribe, to fund recovery initiatives such as the rebuilding of the first seven of 40 government buildings and ministries that crumbled.

Martelly said he was satisfied with the progress, touting the number of people who are out of tents, paved kilometers of road and kids in school, as part of the success.

“So many kids were out of schools,” he said. “The image of Haiti is changing around the world.”

Still, much more could have been done, observers say. The slow pace of progress has been blamed on a number of factors, from the flood of international aid subsidizing social programs but not creating sustainable development, to the lack of legal reform over land tenure and the creation of a competitive business environment, to the failings of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton, to help Haiti “build back better.”

“Five years later, the money that came didn’t build anything, the same structural problems remain the same and we are back to the same level of debt prior to the earthquake,” said Gregory Brandt, president of the private sector Economic Forum, a federation of chambers of commerce and major business chief executives.

“The country is better off in one aspect, security,” he said. “But it’s fragile because there hunger, poverty, job creation and decentralization still haven’t been addressed.”

Pierre-Marie Boisson, a local economist, said “were it not for migration-related boom in remittances and PetroCaribe, we would now be feeling the full impact of foreign aid coming down from $2.7 billion to $973 million in 2014.”

Despite the best of intentions of the international community to coordinate the recovery, nations did not succeed in speeding up the rebuilding or decongesting Port-au-Prince by creating tens of thousands of promised jobs or permanent homes outside of the capital, critics say.

Even inside the teeming capital, construction projects didn’t have the kind of growth many envisioned, thanks to contracts that went mostly to Dominican firms that imported their own workers.

“The IHRC was a failure,” said Sen. Steve Benoit, who voted against the law creating the commission to oversee donor funds and projects. “I said five years ago to Mr. Clinton … Port-au-Prince will look exactly the same. There isn’t one government building that has been constructed. The [Supreme Court] that is going up is a gift from Taiwan.”

Of the government buildings under construction, all except for the Supreme Court are being built by the Dominican firm HADOM/ROFI. They are behind schedule and over the holidays the company stopped work, said Guillaume Innocent, who’s in charge of the projects for the government’s Unit for Housing Construction and Public Buildings (ULCBP).

The contracts were given as part of a controversial no-bid deal, totaling more than $200 million, to a company owner and influential Dominican Senator Felix Bautista. Bautista, facing court action, is accused of wielding his influence to win the post-earthquake contracts.

Nowhere is the failure of the mission to create a new Haiti more apparent than on the outskirts of the capital across from the flooded grounds of the newly donated Olympic Village recreational grounds. Known as Canaan-Jerusalem, the site was created after the U.S. government demanded Haiti set aside land to create post-quake settlements.

Instead of an organized community, however, the area has quickly become the biggest post-quake slum.

“Hopefully,” said Thomas Adams, Haiti special coordinator with the State Department, “we’re going to get ahead of the curve there.”

Haiti, Adams said, faces a lot of challenges that continue to hinder stability and development.

Still, it has made progress, he said, despite the U.S. government’s own challenges in implementing its $2.7 billion long-term reconstruction and development assistance.

“Overall we’ve seen some real good results in job creation at Caracol [Industrial Park], in health, in security, including building the capacity of the Haitian National Police,” Adams said. “We have also faced some challenges of supporting new home construction and developing a new port up north and getting more local Haitian organizations to be direct recipients for funding.”

In an address to the Haitian people on the quake’s commemoration, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted the successes and the United States’ role in them. But he also warned that Haiti’s political crisis could reverse those gains.

“Haiti’s success requires greater political stability,” Kerry said. “Only with increased stability, including the holding of free and fair elections, now overdue, can Haiti ensure the rights of its citizens and attract the foreign investment needed to create economic opportunity and reduce poverty.”

Gregoire Goodstein, Haiti mission chief for the International Organization for Migration, said given the country’s reality even before the quake, “I think what has been done is not that bad.”

At its peak, 1.5 million Haitians lived in more than 1,500 camps. Today, that number has dropped by 94 percent, said IOM, which has registered 79,397 people in 105 sites.

“If we measure our success in numbers, we can say that a lot has been done,” said Goodstein, appealing to the international community to not forget those who are still displaced. “But we cannot rest on these laurels. We must see to it that each and every displaced Haitian has a home in 2015.”

Those remaining under tents are the most vulnerable, the poorest of the poor in a poor nation that wasn’t prepared to withstand the 7.0 magnitude of the unimaginable disaster, aid officials say.

“The people here truly do not have the means to get out of this situation,” said Charles Filbert, a displaced camp resident and leader at one of the remaining 105 camps.

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